In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible. Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying. This sermon, the eighth in the series, was preached on August 2, 2015.
Do any of you recall the book Silent Spring? Written by Rachel Carson and published in 1962, Silent Spring revealed the effects of chemicals, pesticides in particular, on our air, land, and waters. With that book, Rachel Carson effectively launched the modern environmental movement. The title of the book comes from a poem, and refers to the silencing of birdsong – the springtime quiet silence we could expect if we continued to pollute our earth and its waters with chemicals – if we allowed our waters to die rather than to live.
People are often under the impression that the problem with environmental poisons, such as DDT, is that animals, including birds, ingest them directly. But perhaps the most significant problem is that the chemicals seep into the water system, into groundwater, streams, rivers, and oceans, and cause them to die, thus transforming entire ecosystems which depend upon those waters.
In Ohio, a major symptom of waters dying from pesticide use was the declining bald eagle situation. In 1979, the Ohio bald eagle population had been reduced to four nesting pairs – in other words, bald eagles had been almost eradicated from Ohio. The reason? Dying waters. DDT seeped from farmland into the waters of Ohio, and from the waters into the fish, and from the fish, into the eagles. And then – the problem wasn’t that the eagles died from eating the fish. The problem was that, with so much DDT in their systems, the eagles hatched eggs with shells that were too thin – and when the eagles settled into their nests to brood their eggs, the eggs cracked open under their weight.
The effect of pesticides on waters – on dying waters – is pervasive and insidious. From farm to water to fish to eagle to egg – DDT affected every ecosystem level critical to eagle life, and almost destroyed the entire population.
But then – after Silent Spring sounded the alarm, and environmental protection laws were passed, and DDT was banned, and we began to regulate the uses of pesticides and other chemicals – the waters began to clear, to heal, and to live again! Today, there are about 200 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Ohio – a sign that living waters are as essential to life at all levels as dying waters were destructive to entire systems of life.
Jesus knew something about this. Jesus knew something about the differences between water which is never enough, water which fails to quench thirst, and water which is life-giving and healing. Water which runs clear with the presence of the Divine.
When Jesus encounters the woman in our story today, the woman at the well, he has become deeply acquainted with the insidious waters of a faith which is, at best, limping along. In Judea, to the south, people are arguing over who is baptizing more disciples, Jesus or John. Who has more adherents, the Presbyterians or another denomination? Who has more followers, Donald Trump or Jeb Bush? We’re familiar with these arguments, aren’t we? – and we know that they are not exactly life-giving.
Jesus, tired and worn down by disagreements which detract from his ministry, heads north, back to Galilee. But he and his disciples stop in Samaria, in Sychar, a place in which he is pulled right back into the disagreements which so intrigue people of faith.
The Samarians, you see, although they, too, are descendants of Abraham and Jacob, have some significant religious differences with the Jews, so much so that it is extremely unlikely that a Jewish man like Jesus would come to a well seeking water from a Samarian woman. For that matter, in that time and place, it would be a violation of numerous religious laws for a man to ask a woman not his wife, or daughter, or mother, or sister, for a drink of water.
So Jesus has waded right into the waters of disagreement, of rules which diminish rather than further life, of rules which create hierarchies and divisions rather than community and connection. It’s one thing to recognize appropriate boundaries, to create rituals and regulations which identify who we are and help us to celebrate our lives and our heritage. It’s another entirely to focus on our differences in ways which deride and criticize others.
And this Samaritan woman – she gets right into it with Jesus.
How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samarian?
How is it that you, a man, ask a drink of me, a woman?
Where do you get that living water of which you speak?
Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob, who gave us this well?
But Jesus – Jesus is quietly persistent.
I have living water to give you.
This water here, this tangible water – it will not quench your thirst forever.
If you drink the water I offer, you will never be thirsty again.
The water I offer will become a spring in you gushing up to eternal life.
In other words, the water I offer will fill every crack and crevice in your thirsty life.
The water I offer will be yours for generation upon generation.
The water I offer will pervade your life with renewal, and will flood your life with growth.
How do you know when you have encountered the living water of Jesus Christ?
Living water moves! Living water nourishes! Living water creates new life! Living water overcomes barriers! Living water seeps into every level of your life!
In the Bible, water is often understood as a symbol for the Spirit of God, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. I wonder what might happen if each of us this coming week understood our presence here in worship, and our encounter with the word, through the reading and the sermon, and with sacrament, through our receiving of communion, to be an encounter with Jesus. With Jesus himself! – an encounter as real and personal and deep as that experienced by the woman at the well. And then I wonder . . .
What if we moved forward into this week and asked God for a specific grace, a specific gift: that we might remember, every day, that we ourselves are filled with the water of the Holy Spirit? That Jesus has given us living water, water that completely quenches our thirst?
I know that we Presbyterians aren’t a very demonstrative lot. We are the chosen frozen, after all. We look askance at emotional expression, even, or perhaps especially, in church. But we also hold our scripture in high esteem, and it’s right there in the Bible; Jesus himself says it: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The water that he has given YOU – and you have been marked with that water ever since your baptism – that water that he has given YOU will become a spring in YOU gushing up to eternal life. To a new life. To a life in which the kingdom of God prevails.
So think about that this week.
If you pause as you get out of bed one morning and think, I am filled with the water of the Spirit, will your day be different?
If you are trying to complete a difficult task and you think, I am thirsty for this to be over, but the Spirit quenches my thirst, will things proceed more smoothly?
If you get angry at someone, but before you say anything, you pause to consider, my words are moistened by the Spirit, will some unexpectedly gracious words come out of your mouth?
And if you are acknowledging and relying upon the living waters of the Spirit, the waters offered you by Jesus, will your words and actions affect others in grace-filled ways?
They will, because water affects every aspect, every level, whether of a single organism or an entire ecosystem. Healthy, living waters mean that hundreds of eagles soar across the skies of Ohio. Healthy, living water from Jesus mean that the Spirit soars in our lives. Amen!